Unusual UN meet to close without Taliban, Myanmar speeches

The UN representative of Afghanistan's former regime was expected to defy the Taliban with an address on Monday after the group requested its new foreign minister be allowed to speak instead.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid (C) gestures as he addresses the first press conference in Kabul on 17 August 2021 following the Taliban stunning takeover of Afghanistan. Picture: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP

UNITED NATIONS - The UN General Assembly in New York ends on Monday but without speeches by those in power in Afghanistan and Myanmar, one of many quirks at this year's diplomatic marathon that saw 100 leaders defy coronavirus fears to meet in person.

The UN representative of Afghanistan's former regime was expected to defy the Taliban with an address on Monday after the group requested its new foreign minister be allowed to speak instead.

The Taliban wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last Monday requesting that Amir Khan Muttaqi be allowed to "participate."

The letter noted that Ghulam Isaczai, Afghanistan's UN envoy under Ashraf Ghani, who was ousted last month, "no longer represents" Afghanistan at the United Nations.

The plea was due to be considered by a committee that included the United States, Russia and China, but a UN official told AFP the meeting didn't take place.

A diplomat said the Taliban sent their request "too late," paving the way for Isaczai, whom the UN still recognizes as Afghanistan's representative, to speak.

If he does take the opportunity, he could demand a strengthening of sanctions against the Taliban, as he did during a Security Council meeting on September 9.

The week of speeches was originally due to end with Afghanistan, Myanmar and Guinea, but the situation of the latter two countries also stirred up further intrigue going into the last day.

A high-level UN diplomat told AFP that "an agreement" had been reached between the United States, Russia and China preventing Myanmar's UN ambassador -- an outspoken supporter of the democracy movement who has refused junta orders to quit -- from speaking.

'LOW PROFILE'

Kyaw Moe Tun, chosen by former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is supported by the international community and has retained his seat at the United Nations following the February 1 military coup.

In May, the junta appointed a former general to replace him, but the United Nations has not yet approved the appointment.

Kyaw Moe Tun was the victim of a recent alleged conspiracy foiled by US investigators that plotted to either force him to resign or kill him if he refused.

He told AFP his plans for the General Assembly were "low profile."

Diplomats are, however, expecting to hear from Guinea's representative to the UN, Aly Diane, even though he is an appointee of the former president who was deposed in a military coup earlier this month.

It is another curiosity at this year's high-level meet, which saw some 100 leaders descend on the UN headquarters after last year's event was mostly virtual.

"How encouraging to see the General Assembly meet again in person," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Friday.

"Don't we all aspire to 'get back to normal?'" he asked.

General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid agreed in an interview with AFP.

"It is clear that diplomacy greatly benefits from the creativity, exchange of ideas, discussions and flexibility that comes with in person meetings," he said.

SUBMARINE SPAT

Many leaders chose to send video messages instead, however.

French President Emmanuel Macron initially said he would attend, before opting to send a video message that was to be played the day after US President Joe Biden spoke.

But now, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will speak Monday for France, whose presence all week was overshadowed by a spat with the United States over a mega submarine deal with Australia.

The address will be delivered via a pre-recorded video message, despite Le Drian being at the UN for five days this week.

"It is rare for one of the five permanent members of the Security Council to intervene on the last day. I've never seen it," said a European diplomat, on condition of anonymity.

But despite the tensions and concern over growing lack of mutual trust among the international community, Shahid said this year's General Assembly led him "to the conclusion that we all share the same concerns and wish the same outcome."

Washington, fearing the event would be a hotbed for the coronavirus, had tried to dissuade leaders from traveling to New York, where a vaccine mandate is in place.

Strict rules over masks and social distancing were imposed, with only seven people per delegation allowed. However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was flanked by 20 people when he walked the corridors of the UN.

Ultimately, only four positive cases were reported, all in the delegation of Brazil, whose president Jair Bolsonaro is a vaccine skeptic, although his wife did receive a shot while in the Big Apple.

The restrictions meant that on the first day of the debate, only 1,929 people passed through the security gates at the UN, compared to 26,000 in 2019, according to the world body.

In all, by the end, more than 200 speeches will have been delivered, many focusing on international collaboration on climate change and COVID-19.

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